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Smithsonian Q & A: BaseballThe Ultimate Question & Answer Book
By David Fischer
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 David Fischer
All right reserved.
Baseball's Early Days
Throughout history children and adults have played games that involve hitting a ball with a stick and running from one base to another. Baseball as we know it today evolved in part from the British games of cricket and rounders, which came to New England with the earliest colonists.
Still immensely popular overseas, cricket is played between two 11-person teams. There are two wickets, one at each end of a long field. A wicket consists of three sticks 28 inches high. A batter, called a striker, stands in front of a wicket. A bowler (similar to a baseball pitcher) throws the ball at a wicket. If the striker hits the ball, he runs back and forth between the wickets. Each time he reaches a wicket he scores a run for his team. If the striker misses the ball and the ball hits the wicket, the striker is out.
In rounders, which was played mostly by children in the schoolyards, the striker hits a pitched ball, runs counterclockwise around four posts—similar in concept to bases—and can be "out" if the ball is caught before it hits the ground.
As cricket and rounders migrated throughout the Northeast,many uniquely American variations grew out of these two British games, including old cat, barn ball, round ball, town ball, and a game played in parks in New York City in the early 1840s called base ball.
Q: What were baseball's first written rules?
A: On September 23, 1845, in a public park in Manhattan, Alexander Joy Cartwright, a 25-year-old bank teller and volunteer fireman from New York City, helped write alist of rules for the game of "base ball" that he and his friends played.
The rules for their game, a loose version of rounders, included:
- The bases shall be from "home" to second base, forty-two paces; from first to third base, forty-two paces, equidistant.
- The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.
- A ball knocked out of the field, or outside the range of the first and third base, is foul.
- A player running the bases shall be out if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, or the runner is touched with it before he makes his base; it being understood, however, that in no instance is a ball to be thrown at him.
- Players must take their strike in regular turn.
The game as played by Cartwright and his associates nudged baseball away from its British roots by placing the batter at home plate, instead of several feet away toward first base, as in rounders. In rounders, an entire team had to be retired to end an inning, but Cartwright's rules reduced the outs needed to complete an inning to three. Runners were tagged out or thrown out; previously the ball had been thrown at the runner for an out. Other rules were changed or added through the years. By the early 1900s, baseball was being played practically the same way it is today.
Q: What was the first organized baseball team ever?
A: After putting down rules in September 1845, Cartwright and about 25 friends formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. The Knickerbockers fashioned their own uniforms: white flannel shirts and blue wool pants with a straw hat, and began playing games in public parks in New York and New Jersey.
As other ball clubs began to formally adopt the Knickerbocker rules, organized games became common. Within a few years baseball was being played all over the East Coast.
Q: Where did the Knickerbockers play their first game?
A: The first organized baseball game played by Cartwright's rules was held on June 19, 1846, at the Elysian Fields, a grassy picnic area overlooking the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. With Cartwright as umpire, the New York Base Ball Club beat the Knickerbockers at their own game, 231, in four innings.
Due to the fact that there were very few suitable fields in Manhattan, the Knickerbockers made the Elysian Fields their permanent home, and as new teams were organized, they journeyed to Hoboken for games that attracted large gatherings of spectators. By the end of the decade several other clubs were using the grounds as well.
Q: How long before the first league was formed?
A: By 1858 the Knickerbockers and 24 other teams from the New York City area that played by the same rules formed the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). By the middle of the 1860s about 60 teams belonged to this organization, which had been created to regulate the game. One of the association's main rules was that all players must be amateurs. But as more teams were formed, the demand for good players grew, and some teams began paying top players to play for them.
Birth of a Game
Q: Who is commonly—and incorrectly—credited as the man who invented baseball?
A: Baseball was not invented. Baseball evolved.
For many years it was believed that a student named Abner Doubleday created baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, a small town in rural upstate New York.
According to legend, Doubleday tweaked the rules of the game of town ball and established rules for a new game that he called baseball. It was said that he laid out a diamond-shaped field in Elihu Phinney's Cooperstown cow pasture, thus creating the first baseball field. For a long time this story was accepted as the origin of baseball, and for this reason the town of Cooperstown was chosen as the site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In fact, the story says that Doubleday Field, where the annual Hall of Fame Game is held each summer, was built on the site of that very same cow pasture where Doubleday allegedly created the baseball field.
Doubleday was a heroic Civil War general at the Battle of Gettysburg . . .
Excerpted from Smithsonian Q & A: Baseball by David Fischer Copyright © 2007 by David Fischer. Excerpted by permission.
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